Home to some 200,000 people, the modern city of Beersheba is located just three miles from the ancient city where, according to Genesis, Abraham made a treaty with the Philistine king Abimelech. Today it is the largest city in the Negev—the desert that makes up most of Israel’s south. Matti Friedman paints a portrait of the city:
David Ben-Gurion knew the future of Israel was in the Negev, which had most of the country’s land and almost none of its people, and he famously called on the pioneer youth to make it flower. In Zionist mythology, Beersheba is the city of the future. Is that still true? Unless Israelis have a pressing reason to come here, they don’t.
The turning point for the . . . city . . . came in the early 1990s with the great wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union. This human movement that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet empire was perhaps the biggest stroke of luck in Israel’s history, proof that God gives this country what it needs (though not necessarily what it wants). This time, His gift came in the form of a million Jewish atheists.
The Russians needed homes and Beersheba needed people. Today a quarter of the people who live here were born in the Soviet Union. In a closely related piece of trivia, Beersheba has more chess masters per capita than anywhere else in Israel.
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is a world-class institution with, by all accounts, the best student life in Israel. The social buzz on campus, the hangouts under the rosewood trees on Ringelblum Street, the first-rate veggie Indian restaurant—you’re unlikely to meet anyone who studied here and didn’t love it, or to meet anyone who studied here and stayed. The jobs just aren’t here. Beersheba produces more engineers than any other Israeli city, but the economy that needs them is around Tel Aviv.